Tattoo Exhibit Celebrates the Artist Zulu and L.A.’s Body Art History

At last week’s opening night of the Craft and Folk Art Museum’s exhibit “L.A. Skin & Ink,” which celebrates the last 60 years of tattooing in Los Angeles, the crowd could be heard laughing and chattering from nearly a block away as Alex Clare’s “Too Close” played in the background.

After entering through the gift shop, where there’s an assortment of books on the history of tattooing and packets of temporary tattoos, I ascended the stairway, past groups of beautifully unique individuals with colorful hair, fearless fashion, and — of course — often ink-covered skin.

At the top of the stairs an old station where a tattoo artist would have worked sixty years ago was set up, while further inside a more modern display illuminates just how much times have changed. Exhibitions Coordinator Sasha Ali explained that it was important to the curators that they cover the early growth of tattooing, the unique influence Asian and Pacific styles had on the West Coast, as well as modern day where fine art and tattoo have been bridged.

Ron Platt, who previously curated “Under the Skin: Tattoos and Contemporary Culture,” and Camila Rocha of High Voltage Tattoo, helped assure that the exhibit fully covered the past half century, from when clients chose an image displayed on a shop wall, to the present, as tattooing has evolved to become a more sophisticated form of art.

One of the very first things you see when entering the exhibit is an enormous print of a back piece by Zulu, whom CAFAM has chosen to be their artist honoree at its second annual Craft Affair brunch.

“How my entry to the tattoo world happened — I never thought the tattoo world would honor me,” he says. When Zulu went looking to apprentice some twenty years ago, he wasn’t met with open arms. He had been classically trained and wasn’t interested in what was necessarily popular or easy — he sought to do something that was both artistic and spiritual.

These days he is considered to be one of the heavy hitters in the tattoo world. He’s gifted in a variety of styles but his tribal pieces are what he is most known for. “Zulu incorporates sacred images,” says Ali, and “he brings out the sacred imagery within a person.”

Tattoos have become deeply personal and enormously powerful. It isn’t just a tattoo, and it isn’t just some guy in a shop — it’s black and gray, portrait, biomechanical, tribal, Chicano, or maybe your kid’s footprint, and you choose your artist with great care. In this new age of tattooing the old flash style is far from abandoned and often chosen and executed with far more care than ever before.

Today’s most popular tattoo artists often get their start in other mediums. Zulu reminded us that “many of these artists do more than just tattoo. They paint, sculpt. These are true renaissance men and women.”

Once upon a time tattooing was all traditional, flash-style tattoos and almost exclusively for criminals and sailors. Many shops today no longer cover their walls in flash and will often turn away anybody who’s been drinking or looking for something with a hateful message. The tide has changed, and Zulu is one of frontrunners in the new age. A frontrunner with celebrity clientele and a hell of a waiting list.

“It’s a big, big deal for me,” Zulu says of CAFAM honoring him, “but it’s a bigger deal for the tattoo world. A museum recognizes what we do as a viable art form, when they say we’re artists the rest of the world takes notice.” And the world is taking notice, as tattoos are rarely considered taboo and continue to grow in popularity. As more people get one of a kind pieces with deep personal meaning, the stigma of the past is dying off and a new generation of artists is flourishing.

“L.A. Skin & Ink” runs through January 6 and there is an assortment of special events scheduled, including an artist’s talk with Zulu, which will be followed by a special Zulu Lounge with proceeds benefitting CAFAM. Camila Rocha will be participating in a few events, including a CraftLab Workshop, where she will demonstrate a number of ways to draw temporary tattoos — for those not quite ready to commit to forever art.



INk the News: ‘Tattoo Hunter’ to share cultural history of body art in Student Union

From arctic Alaska to Papua New Guinea, Lars Krutak keeps permanent memories of his travels to the corners of the globe in the form of indigenous tattoos.

The host of Discovery Channel’s “Tattoo Hunter” will present “Skin Deep: The History and Art of Indigenous Tattooing,” beginning at 6 p.m. in the Atchafalaya Room of the Student Union.

Krutak will begin with an encyclopedic introduction into the world and history of indigenous tattooing, followed by a segment on the magical and spiritual ramifications and meanings tattoos carry for the people who wear them. This piece will feature video segments from “Tattoo Hunter” to demonstrate to the audience how these cultures work.

Despite the varied natures of the world’s indigenous cultures, many use tattooing for similar purposes, Krutak explained.

“Practically speaking, a lot of people use tattoos cross-culturally for the same purposes even though they weren’t connected through any methods of communication or exchange,” he said. “It is a language, if you want to call it that. It’s a tool to communicate various things cross-culturally. Obviously, when you see someone with a tattooed face or other exposed body part, that’s the first impression you’re going to have of that individual.”

For many cultures, tattoos are also associated with rites of passage. They mark different periods of life and growth in maturity, beginning as early as 3 years old.

“It obviously transforms you physically but also spiritually,” he said. “I can think of many examples where, without receiving the mark of the tribe, you weren’t even considered to be human. You’re basically like an alien in some sense.”

But the first signs of tattoos were discovered in mummification. Krutak cited a 7,000-year-old South American mummy with cosmetic tattoos for beautification. And for several cultures, tattoos also serve medicinal purposes. Like acupuncture, tattooing was and is often used for sprains and arthritis.

“This therapy, if you want to call it that, was efficacious, and it worked,” he said. “Otherwise, people wouldn’t continue to do it now, 5,300 years after the ice man was running around in the European Alps with these medicinal tattoos and joint articulations.”

As a result of his interests in these traditions, Krutak himself bears various tattoos and body modifications from indigenous cultures he’s visited around the world.

“I’ve been getting all the traditional tattoos done,” he said. “I’ve basically had every technique that was ever practiced in the indigenous world, from hand tapping, to skin tattooing, to hand poking, to skin stitching, scarification — all of those methods, I’ve had.”

Krutak received his first tattoo from a friend in New Orleans in 1999. While this proved his only machine-made tattoo, it resembles St. Lawrence Island Yupic designs, an Alaskan culture that sparked Krutak’s interest in indigenous tattooing.

Krutak was familiar with tattooing because he previously lived around the corner from the famed tattoo artist John Ed Hardy in the Bay Area of San Francisco. When he moved to Alaska for his master’s degree, he encountered indigenous tattooing for the first time.

“I was walking across campus, and I came across this woman who was from a native village, and she had striped chin tattoos — I had never seen those before,” he said. “It wasn’t done traditionally, but it was done more to pay homage to her ancestors and her identity in that particular community. I began to explore a little deeper, and I found that it was a widespread practice across the arctic, but no one had really given it much attention.”

Krutak then found a group of women in their 80s and 90s with similar body work as part of this culture.

“I worked with those women, and they’ve all passed away, so I soon realized that this is probably happening all around the world in many remote regions,” he said. “So I sort of dedicated myself to documenting and preserving it.”

Fifteen years later, Krutak continues to help preserve indigenous cultures through his work at the Smithsonian as the repatriation case officer for Alaska and the Southwest United States. Here, he helps facilitate the return of human remains, sacred ceremony objects and patrimonial objects at the Smithsonian back to tribes who claim affiliation with these items.

“We’re giving back objects that have been at the museum for a long, long time,” he said. “Basically, I’m just trying to mend the circle and heal wounds that have sort of been long standing, and it’s a great job because I’m working with these people [Native Americans] on a daily basis.”